How does a Mississippi girl end up as the director of a quintessential New England library? Owen Shuman thinks it was luck. She is ending a 25-year stint at Groton Public Library on a day that numerologists love, 12/12/12, a fitting end to a near-magical career.
Blonde, slim, with a friendly energy evident as she greets library patrons by name, Owen Shuman seems an unlikely candidate for retirement. Interviewed on her last full day as director, she chose the third floor with its high-domed ceiling, graceful Beaux Arts arches, and curved wall of windows looking out on the Groton landscape.
Jane Allen: The library has truly transformed under the guidance of Owen Shuman
The library has truly transformed under the guidance of Owen Shuman. Both the building and the service have dramatically improved. Her impeccable taste and high standards can easily be seen throughout the library. The building still appears â€œnewâ€ even after almost 14 years. Customer service has always taken top priority and the staff is inviting and helpful. The town has benefited greatly because of Owenâ€™s leadership.
â€œI never just sit here, so itâ€™s a treat,â€ she said. The new director, Vanessa Abraham, former assistant director in Bedford, is already using the directorâ€™s office.
â€œMy mother was a voracious reader, but our town did not have a library building,â€ Owen recalled of life in Columbus, in the northeast corner of Mississippi. â€œThe town had a collection of books that were kept in a storage room at the high school along with band instruments.â€ Her mother became the first member of the â€œFriends of the Columbus Library.â€ Owen went off to college and graduated as an English major from Florida State University, with no idea of her future direction. She considered counseling, but she was working at a library when her boss quit. She had her first real taste of library work and was soon on her way to a library degree at Simmons College. In one decisive move, she set her career path and moved to New England.
Dave Zeiler's 'Serious Paean to Owen'
I was going to write a serious paean to Owenâ€™s administrative skills, to whit her attention to detail, her organization skills, her devotion to preparation, and her managerial skills which resulted in the excellence of the Groton Public Library, but I stopped myself.
All of these things are, of course, true, but I kept coming back to the personality traits which shine through in Owen â€“ her sense of humor and her warmth â€“ and I realized that it was her judicious use of those personal attributes which allowed her to be so successful as an administrator.
Her willingness to listen to all patrons and their ideas, her empathy in dealing with staff members, her willingness to take constructive criticism from the library trustees and her interactions with other town employees and elected officials helped her foster relationships which allowed her to lead the Groton Public Library to be one of the busiest libraries per capita in the Commonwealth.
Certainly, the physical plant of the GPL is beautiful and inviting, due in no small part to Owenâ€™s leadership, but it is the human interactions of the GPL which has made it a central part of our town. Her mentorship of the GPL staff has allowed them to become individuals who work together as a team to create, as the GPL mission statement reads, â€œâ€¦a vibrant and welcoming sanctuary to spark curiosity and open mindsâ€.
The town of Groton has always enthusiastically supported its library, but under Owenâ€™s warm and generous leadership it has blossomed to be one of the premier libraries in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We have truly been fortunate to have had Owen lead this centerpiece of our town for 25 years, making it better and putting it on a strong foundation to face an exciting future as reading, viewing and listening media are undergoing a seismic reordering.
Former GPL Trustee
Her first job, at the well-regarded Memorial Hall library in Andover, included working for the â€œAnswersâ€ community program. The program was so successful, it received a national award. Owen moved through a series of jobs around the time her son, Matthew, was born to her and husband Stuart.
â€œI had a reputation as a library temp,â€ she said. She filled in on a contract basis for other librarians off on maternity leave at Houghton Mifflin and Lotus Development Corporation. â€œIt was an unplanned career,â€ she said.
Owen and Stuart had moved to Groton for convenienceâ€™s sake. It was equidistant from his work as Dean of Community Education at Quinsigamond Community College and her work in Andover. In 1987, she applied for the open position of director here. At the time, Groton Public Library was a modest 4,000 square feet. Built in 1891, it opened the same year as the Boston Public Library.
Owen assumed the director position, the first director to hold a Masterâ€™s of Library Science degree. The library had a staff of four and fewer hours open to the public. Within the first week, she had convinced the staff to reduce the hour and a half lunchtime closures — already moving towards the accessible library that has become her legacy.
Susan Hughes: I will always marvel...
I will always marvel at the way Owen connects the library to our community. She is the ultimate “people person”, greeting everyone, representing the library in everything she does. She brought people into the library with innovative programs and events and took the library experience out to people, with school visits and even home delivery for ill patrons. She had the vision to create the kind of space that when people gathered, they wanted to be at the library. On December 2, GPL hosted our first wedding, right in the middle of the reference area! I remember one time she confessed that the traditional librarian in her wanted to tell people to “shhhh” when they chatted with each other until she realized all the chatter meant happy people. We are lucky to have a beautiful library that is truly a community center thanks to Owen and the wonderful staff. Best wishes Owen!
-Susan Hughes, GPL trustee
â€œIâ€™m a bit of a neatnick, so right away we cleaned things out,â€ she said. Bare metal shelves were enhanced with wood panels on the ends. By the second week the library was open longer hours.
She began to make the public library more public. She held brainstorming sessions with the board of directors, issued press releases, and the staff grew. A video library and young adult collections started. The library installed its first computer in 1989. As she made changes, she became aware that space was at a premium in the building. By 1992, a Library Space Needs Committee was meeting. She also created an endowment fund, found donors and donations, and built a secure financial future for the library. That fund contains almost $2 million today.
â€œThe construction was a 22-month project — we were able to keep the integrity of the original building and blend the old and new,â€ she said. â€œI was working 80-hour weeks during those days, but my son and husband were both very proud of me.â€
Mark Gerath: Her focus on service to the people of Groton
While many traits contributed to Owen’s success as Library Director, I think that one of the most important was her focus on service to the people of Groton. Her focus was apparent in small details like making sure that the building was neat and welcoming, as well as major projects like changing to meet the future needs of library users.
Mark Gerath, Library Trustee
With a new 17,000 square foot space, Owen and staffer Ann Wilson began to look at new ways to expand programs. Reading groups (great books and mysteries), teen programs, and an art gallery were added.
â€œMy mother took part in a great books discussion group back in Mississippi and I liked the idea of that.â€
The endowment provided funds for programs, services and special needs above the operating budget. The endowment has also allowed the Groton Public Library to grow to be one of the most highly used libraries in the country.
Nancy Wilder: I am impressed with the Southern hospitality...
As one familiar with cold and aloof New England ways, I am impressed with the Southern hospitality that Owen shared with our town over the past 25 years. She was always gracious, warm and welcoming in the service she provided to the residents of Groton.
Innovation abounds at the library. It was the first library in Massachusetts to reorganize the fiction section into categories, similar to a bookstore. They have added a lifelong learning program.
â€œWe have kept forward-thinking,â€ she said. From a vibrant website to GPLâ€™s active presence on Facebook, the energy is evident. Last weekend, the library hosted its first wedding in the space on the third floor. â€œWe fit in 80 chairs.â€ The teen group had decorated a Christmas tree with ornaments crafted from pages of Shakespeare; and the tree was the main decoration for the bride and groom who received two of the decorations as mementos.
And for herself, she is thinking about next steps, but not too hard. When she gave her notice to the Board of Trustees this past August, she felt that the timing was right.
â€œI was going to be celebrating my 60th birthday and my 25th anniversary here.â€ She has a consulting contract to help another library over the next six months. Her husband retired 10 years ago and they would both like to travel more.
â€œIâ€™m a doer,â€ she said.
Kristen von Campe: I have learned so much from Owen
I have learned so much from Owen in the ten years I have been working with her as a trustee, but I have been particularly impressed with how well she has coped with the recent hiring process we went through to find her replacement. Owen was quite involved in the early stages. She sat on the screening committee and was instrumental in choosing the candidates that the trustees then decided to interview. She then had to cede control to the trustees as we interviewed and then hired the next library director. She did this graciously, even though it must have been very difficult to step back and leave this decision in our hands.
Once we announced that we had hired the next director, she invited the trustees to personally make our announcement to the staff and to answer their questions. Her primary concern was for them and for reassuring them that we had chosen well. She then took it upon herself to insure that Vanessa Abraham received the warmest welcome to Groton.
Owenâ€™s final task was to prepare Vanessa for her new role as Grotonâ€™s 10th library director. With her usual care and concern for the library, for the community, and for her dedicated staff, she has worked diligently over the past month to insure that the transition is a smooth one. She has handled it with the grace and professionalism for which she has always been known.
Kristen von Campe